Beef and lamb: what do I get for my levy? – Animal health, genetics, and the environment

Read on to find out about the important research being carried out in the fields of disease, genetics, and environment and how it could impact and improve your farm.

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Animal health

BVDFree

Bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD) is one of the biggest disease issues facing the cattle industry today, costing UK farmers in total between £25-£61m per year. The BVDFree England scheme was set up in 2016 to facilitate the eradication of BVD in England.

AHDB invests £10,000 in the project each year, with backing from more than 100 industry organisations. Part of your levy goes towards a range of activities that communicate the importance of eradicating BVD and improving/maintaining the scheme.

The online national database, bvdfree.org.uk, allows farmers to search for the BVD status of individual animals and herds tested under the scheme.

Neonatal project

More than 90% of newborn losses in the beef and lamb sector occur in the first week of life. In collaboration with HCC and QMS, we are developing a mechanism to deliver an evidence based, practical Target Survival control plan tailored to risk factors on individual farms to improve neonatal survival.

This plan comprises 64 evidence points based on the most up-to-date science to allow farmers and vets to work together on actions specific to the individual farm. Although this plan tackles newborn survival, it encompasses management actions throughout the calendar year. This plan will be rolled out to the first cohort of vets in January 2022.

Genetics - sheep

Signet Breeding Services

Signet provides performance recording services for sheep and beef producers. Through the analysis of pedigree and performance records, a range of Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) and Breeding Indexes are generated to help sheep producers identify genetically superior rams and ewes.

  • Signet is responsible for assessing the genetic merit of over 50,000 lambs per annum
  • It delivers over 25 different breeding values to over 30 breeds of sheep through its breeding platform
  • Through Signet, the industry is only ever three clicks away from a dataset exceeding five million animal records collected over the last four decades

Rates of genetic gain for growth, carcase and maternal traits are currently at an all-time high. Hundreds of ram breeders reliant on Signet’s ultrasound scanning service to assess their lamb crop each season.

In recent years Signet’s services have developed to support online data entry, the integration of Breed Society data, collaboration with farm software providers and the launch of marketing services that make it easier than ever to find the right ram for your flock.

Find out more about Signet Data

Enhancing performance through genetic improvement

Genetic improvement provides an important way for producers to lift the productivity and profitability of their livestock enterprises. Genetic gain within the UK is currently worth £10.7m to the sheep industry and £4.9m per annum to the beef industry, with much of this work underpinned by AHDB’s programme of research, delivery and knowledge exchange.

Current research projects:

Enhancing the value of the carcase through the use of computed tomography; identifying breeding lines that can change the weight, shape and yield of the modern lamb carcase, as well as enhancing eating quality and reducing its environmental footprint.

Research at SRUC shows that rates of gain are 7-20% faster in flocks that CT scan. This is why AHDB pioneered the use of CT scanning and has actively supported breeders to use it for over 20 years for the benefit of the whole supply chain.

Assessing ways to breed sheep that are genetically resistant to internal parasites, including measuring immune response in lambs shown to be more resistant to Strongyles infections.

Developing a strategic approach to enhancing ewe efficiency, by understanding the optimum live weight and body condition of the breeding ewe both in terms of her economic performance and her impact on the environment. As well as identifying breeding lines with lower lamb mortality, high prolificacy, better milking ability and longer ewe survival.

Working with HCC in Wales, AHDB has relaunched the genetic evaluation services provided to breeders with hill sheep producers; using DNA technology to find those hardy and productive breeding lines required by modern hill producers.

RamCompare

Working with farmers, abattoirs, and retailers, we have shown the impact that superior genetics can have on-farm; whether this is reducing days to slaughter, increasing carcase value, or enhancing consumer facing attributes such tenderness.

The use of high EBV recorded rams can lift performance by £3–4 per lamb simply through informed ram selection. Information from the project feeds back into both our research and evaluations, enabling sheep farmers to find the most profitable sheep for their system.

Genetics – beef

While herd breeding decisions are just one element of cattle management, selecting superior parents for breeding will lead to cumulative and permanent gains in herd productivity, profitability, and efficiency. Breeding, therefore, lies at the foundation of any beef production system, and we have a range of genetic selection tools and ongoing research projects.

Breeding more profitable animals

The AHDB National Beef Evaluations provide Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) for commercial carcase traits for all beef breeds, allowing producers to make breeding decisions based on the traits they are directly paid for. Breeding from animals with the best genetics will help the beef industry become more efficient and profitable.

For example, providing an EBV for days to slaughter enables producers to make selection decisions that will improve speed of finishing. EBVs for carcase weight, conformation and fat class allow producers to improve carcase size and quality, so they can produce an end product that really fits their target market. Carcase traits should be looked at alongside other health and fertility EBVs.

We’ve worked with Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) to analyse slaughter data provided by processors, combined with pedigree data shared by breed societies and the British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS).

By working alongside leading industry, we can gain access to over three million performance and pedigree records from both suckler and dairy beef cattle for use in our analyses. We are the only resource in the UK that allows breeders to make direct EBV comparisons across breeds when making breeding or purchasing decisions, which is one of the advantages of a multi-breed genetic evaluation.

Research to improve performance

Genetic evaluations for maternal traits in beef cattle

In recent years, beef breeding has tended to focus on the improvement of terminal traits, including those represented in the AHDB national beef evaluations.

However, previous research has shown that improvement of maternal traits adds more value to the industry than improvement of terminal traits. For the suckler beef industry to thrive, we must endeavour to breed suckler cows that are efficient and fit for their function, that have a higher lifetime productivity.

We can use birth, death and movement data from BCMS to evaluate four traits that are considered more ‘maternal’ traits: age at first calving, calving interval, longevity, and calf survival. As with our carcase trait evaluations, using national data from BCMS means we can carry out analyses at a multi-breed level, and provide EBV information that can be directly compared across breeds.

Once the project is complete, the new genetic evaluations will be released as part of our AHDB national beef evaluation.

Genetic evaluations for bTB resistance in beef cattle

Bovine tuberculosis (bTB) has been recognised as the most pressing animal health problem in the UK. Surveillance, monitoring and control cost approximately £120m per year. On top of the financial cost to farmers, the consequences of a breakdown also have significant emotional and psychological impacts on those affected.

Extensive research into the genetics of bTB, undertaken jointly by the University of Edinburgh, Roslin Institute and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), and which was supported by Defra and the Welsh Government.

Using data on bTB from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), and pedigree data from BCMS and milk recording organisations, their work showed genetic variation in bTB resistance between animals, and formed the basis of AHDB Dairy’s TB Advantage, the first genetic index of its kind in the world.

We have built on this foundation to research and develop a genetic evaluation for bTB in beef cattle, which has been co-funded by DEFRA. This research has shown that resistance to bTB in beef cattle is about 10% heritable, which means that we can make use of genetic selection techniques to breed beef cattle that are more resistant to bTB.

It’s important to note that breeding cattle with a reduced susceptibility to bTB is a long-term approach to disease control and should comprise just part of a much broader eradication strategy.

All other existing and emerging control measures, therefore, remain critically important and should continue to be taken to protect cattle against bTB, irrespective of the choice of bull.

As with our maternal traits work, once the project is complete, the genetic evaluation for bTB resistance in beef cattle will be released as part of our AHDB national beef evaluation.

Breeding for improved feed efficiency in beef cattle – the Beef Feed Efficiency Programme

Feed costs account for about 70% of variable costs in most beef enterprises. Reducing these can deliver a substantial increase in profit margins. Alongside DEFRA, we have funded the Beef Feed Efficiency Programme.

The programme builds on international research on feed efficiency in beef cattle that shows it is possible to select breeding cattle that eat less for the same growth rate and aims to generate EBVs that allow producers to select the most feed efficient cattle for breeding.

It will also enable the rate of reduction of beef-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to be accelerated by 27 per cent over a 20-year period (when compared with measures already in place).

It is calculated that the feed saving over a 200-day finishing period could be 10-15p/kg gain or £38 per head. 

The second phase of the programme has been expanded to investigate the relationship between feed efficiency and meat quality.

Signet beef genetic evaluations

Signet provides genetic evaluations for several of the numerically smaller beef breeds, producing breeding values that influence ease of calving, growth and carcase attributes, and those maternal traits that impact the productivity of the suckler cow (these include milking ability and reproduction).

Signet’s technician team support breeders through the provision of ultrasound scanning services for both Signet clients and research projects, like the Beef Feed Efficiency project.

Shout about the Sire

The aim of the campaign is to encourage farmers to record the ear tag number of the sire when registering a calf with BCMS. Data from animals whose sire is known are rejected from the analysis for the national beef evaluations, so by recording sire, we can make better use of the data available, and can improve the range and accuracy of these EBVs.

A bull’s EBV gives you a good idea of the genetic potential that will be passed on to his calves and should always be taken into consideration when purchasing stock bulls or choosing AI sires.

Artificial Insemination Courses

Between May 2017 and March 2020 we subsidised 50% of the cost of an AI course for 230 suckler producers across England to help them improve the genetics of their herds, use bulls with proven performance and tailor their breeding strategies to their specific needs.

Find out more about AI courses

Environment

AHDB Grass campaign

Our grass campaign aims to help farmers manage and better use their grass as part of our environment work.

Activity includes:

  • Grass training courses
  • Grazing discussion groups
  • British Grassland Society grazing mentors
  • Forage for Knowledge – grass growth information circulated to nearly 10,000 people during the growing season
  • Recommended grass and clover lists updated each year

GrassCheckGB

Through 33 weekly updates per year, GrassCheckGB provides grass and weather data from 50 farms to inform grassland management decisions to drive an increase in grassland utilisation with 1 extra tonne DM utilised worth £204/year. For an 86ha farm this is worth £17,544/year.

Carbon Audits

AHDB has undertaken carbon footprinting at 10 Beef and Lamb Strategic Farms. We employed consultants to perform the audits using the Agrecalc tool developed by SAC Consulting.

The consultants worked with the producers to input whole farm data. Once the data was validated, and carbon footprints were quantified, bespoke action plans were created to suggest measures each farm could adopt in order to reduce their carbon footprints.

It may not come as a surprise that enteric fermentation as a result of rumination was the greatest contributor of emissions across the majority of the Beef and Lamb farms. Fertiliser use came in second, followed by manures, fuel and feed respectively.

The mitigating actions comprised of a variety of themes ranging from manure management to enhancing carbon sequestration.

Case study

David Barton, Beef and Lamb Strategic Farmer from Gloucestershire, commented on the process, “It’s a good process as it makes you consider everything from the diesel you put in the tractor to the energy you use on the farm.

The farm performed around 26% better than average which I’m pleased with and it’s identified areas which can be improved. It’s also reassuring to know the steps I’ve taken are already having a positive impact on the environment."

Mr Barton added, "I hope in the future for some standardisation so farmers can talk to, and compare with, each other to understand how they’re doing and see what improvements can be made. And, importantly, if we have more robust data from farmers, we will be in a stronger position to challenge the media and defend the reputation of our high-quality British beef which has a low environmental impact.”

Useful links

Beef and lamb: what do I get for my levy? – Export development

Beef and lamb: what do I get for my levy? – Marketing to the UK consumer

Beef and lamb: what do I get for my levy? – Working with our levy payers

Beef and lamb: what do I get for my levy? – Weekly prices and reports on production, trade and demand

Livestock Information Programme

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